11 simple ways to slash your medical costs

medicineAmericans spent more than $2.3 trillion on health care last year. That's more than $7,600 per person -- and it's going to get worse! The government projects that in less than a decade, you'll spend 20% of your annual income on health care.

Health care has been a major theme during this year's Presidential election, and we're paying close attention to the Presidential candidates' plans for how they will fix our badly broken health care system. But let's be honest here: The odds of any real change happening anytime soon are slim to none, so let us help you deal with this budget buster. We're going to show you how to save big bucks on your health care costs right now.

Cost Cutter #1: Get prescription drugs at a big discount
The cost of prescription drugs is a serious problem for many Americans...both young and old. The good news is that a fierce price war among some of our nation's biggest retailers can save you money.

Wal-Mart and Target have greatly expanded their drug discount programs. You can now get a 90-day supply of many medications for just $10 and more than 1,000 over-the-counter medications for $4. Lots of other stores are jumping into the drug discount fray to compete for business. We found a similar program just by calling our local grocery store, Publix.

So, do as we do: Next time you need that prescription drug, head to Wal-Mart or Target, or check with your supermarket's pharmacy. The savings are too good to pass up!

Cost Cutter #2: Ask for free samples
The next time your doctor writes you a prescription, don't leave the office before you ask him a simple question: Do you have any samples that you can give me?

Drug companies spend millions giving doctors free samples in the hopes that the doctor will prescribe their product. Doctors' offices are overflowing with all the free drug samples they get and will gladly hand them over if you just ask. This is also a great way to try out a medication to be sure it works, doesn't have any negative side effects, etc. before you spend money on having a whole prescription filled.

Cost Cutter #3: Use generics
According to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), you can save as much as 52% on the cost of your prescription drugs by going with the generic drug over a brand name.

The number one reason most people don't say "yes" to generics is concern that generics aren't as effective or safe as the brand name. Generic drugs look different because certain inactive ingredients, such as colors and flavorings, may be different, but these ingredients do not affect the performance or safety of the generic drug.

The FDA makes it tough to become a generic drug in America. IF your doctor or health provider says that you may fill a prescription with a generic drug vs. a brand name one...why pay more?

Cost Cutter #4: Use a Flexible Spending Account
We're big fans of the Flexible Spending Account (FSA), so ask your company if they offer this benefit and be sure to enroll if they do. An FSA is a tax-sheltered account that you use to pay for the family medical expenses that your health insurer won't reimburse (everything from insurance co-pays to non-prescription medication to root canals to new eyeglasses). All of your contributions are made in pre-tax dollars, so your taxable income is lower and your money has more buying power. A couple filing jointly may contribute up to $5,000 a year.

The only hitch to FSAs is that if you don't spend the money by the end of the year, you don't get back whatever is left over. It's use it or lose it. Keep that in mind as you decide how much to contribute.

Cost Cutter #5: Deduct your medical expenses on your tax return
If certain medical expenses are greater than 7.5% of your adjusted gross income, you qualify to deduct them from your taxes. That 7.5% might sound like a high hurdle, but it might not be out of reach once you add it all up.

You can include medical expenses for yourself, your spouse and all your dependents. All the standard medical costs count -- doctors, prescription drugs, surgeries, tests, etc. But you can also deduct your insurance premiums, dental expenses, acupuncture, fertility treatment, weight loss programs prescribed by your doctor, chiropractic, special education and much more. Get a copy of IRS publication 502 for a full list of what expenses you can and can't deduct.

Cost Cutter #6: Get free care at clinical trials
Choosing whether or not to take part in a clinical trial can be a tough decision. There's no guarantee the experimental treatment will work, but it can save you a ton of money because many -- if not all -- of the costs are taken care of. (And in many cases, patients actually get paid to participate.)

And who knows? You just may be responsible for finding a new drug or procedure that not only saves your life, but the life of others as well.

Here are two resources that can help you find thousands of clinical trials - first, on the National Institutes of Health web site at http://clinicalstudies.info.nih.gov/and also at http://clinicaltrials.gov/.

Cost Cutter #7: Get the "insurance" discount
Insurance companies negotiate deep discounts of up to 60% with hospitals, doctors, labs, etc.When you don't have insurance or something isn't covered, you end up paying full price. But it doesn't have to be that way.

The key is to ask for a discount. Insurance companies get as much as a 40% to 60% discount, so ask for that first. According to a survey by Consumer Reports National Research Center, only 31% of Americans have even tried to negotiate their medical bills; of the ones who have, though, 93% were successful in getting a discounts, so go for it!

Just make sure you talk to the right person -- usually that's the head of billing. If he or she doesn't have the power to negotiate, ask to speak to someone who can.

Cost Cutter #8: Review bills carefully
Everyone makes mistakes. But hospitals sure do make a lot of them. In a recent review, eight of 10 hospital bills had errors, and those errors cost patients an extra 25% on average!

Be sure you get an itemized bill from the hospital so you can look at each charge line by line. Look for common mistakes such as duplicate charges, coding errors that charge you for the wrong thing, tests you didn't have, and wrongly applied insurance deductibles. Plus, check your admission and discharge dates to be sure they are correct. Call the hospital's billing department to correct errors.

Cost Cutter #9: Don't Take "No" for an Answer
The old saying "If at first you don't succeed, try try again" certainly applies to getting your medical claims paid. Many times a claim is denied because of a simple billing or coding error that can be easily fixed. If your insurance company denies your claim, call your insurer and have them explain in detail the reason for the denial. Be sure to take accurate notes of whom you spoke with and what was said. If the problem isn't resolved in that call, then request a formal appeal from your insurance company. If you need help, get free assistance from the Patient Advocate Foundation. Your appeal should include a letter stating the reasons why your claim should be paid, along with any support documents you might have.

Keep in mind that more than 40% of claim denials are reversed due to appeals. You're paying good money for that insurance -- make sure you get every penny's worth!

Cost Cutter #10: Buy medical equipment and supplies yourself
A visit to the hospital or doctor sometime leads to you needing a medical device or equipment, like crutches, a foot brace, a breathing nebulizer, etc.

If your insurance covers 100% of that expense, great (a quick call to your insurance provider before you buy will tell you whether they'll reimburse you). If not, think twice before buying what you need from your physician or hospital because you'll pay a mark up. You can probably save a bundle by buying those products on your own -- either through a local medical equipment dealer or online.

It may not be as convenient as picking up the equipment at the time of your treatment, but it can save you 25% or more, and who couldn't use that kind of savings in these tough times?

Cost Cutter #11: Stay in your provider network
We can't emphasize this enough: If you're part of a network of healthcare providers, such as a Preferred Provider Organization (PPO), it's mission-critical for you to see only the physicians within that network.

If you don't, you may pay 30% or more of your medical bill, as opposed to having all or most of it covered if you stay within your network. Not to mention that going out of your network typically means both more paperwork and out-of-pocket expense for you. More times than not, you'll have to pay your entire bill up front and then submit for reimbursement from your insurance company.

You don't need that kind of headache and extra expense. Stick with your network.

These 11 tips can help you slash thousands of dollars off your medical costs with ease. But medical costs aren't the only place to save big bucks right now. Visit Dolans.com now for dozens of ways to save money TODAY on everything from groceries to bank fees to credit cards to insurance.

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